Tell us your secrets
For many weeks, we at The Compass have been attempting to gain better access to the affairs of the Town of Bay Roberts. In short, we have had mixed results. To take it to the next level, we have decided to share some of our experiences and our concerns with our readers, and we’ll let you decide if the town is being as transparent and forthcoming as it should be. Let’s keep in mind that council members are publicly elected, oversee an annual operating budget of $6.4 million of public funds, and as such are rightfully accountable for their decisions to the public.
We regularly attend bi-weekly public meetings of the seven-member elected body, which is led by Mayor Glenn Littlejohn. With some exceptions, the public gallery is empty.
Traditionally, the media representative was handed a single sheet of paper with details of the agenda for the meeting, and minutes from the previous meeting. Councillors, however, receive a thick package of documents, containing everything from correspondence and committee meeting minutes to accounts payable and a list of motions from privileged meetings that must be approved in the public meeting.
Discussion was often very cryptic and ambiguous, making it difficult to follow the proceedings and determine the significance of an issue.
After several requests, town officials agreed to provide a “package” to the media. This practice began in January. It’s been a great help. Town officials redact the names of private citizens or business owners who write the town, and we respect that.
But it’s not a complete package. Accounts payable, or the list of payments made by the town each month for the services and products it purchases, has been withheld on several occasions. Why?
We brought this issue to chief administrative officer Nigel Black and this was his response: “It is still a work in progress and our cheque register has had too much personal information included in it to make it suitable for full public release. That being said … we have been working through our accounting program in order to try providing a more appropriate level of information for agenda purposes. I hope that I will be able to include it the next time it is presented as an agenda item.”
Why does council feel it has to be sanitized? Many other towns don’t.
But our biggest concern is the ratification of motions from privileged meetings. Under the Municipalities Act, decisions made at a privileged meeting must by ratified at a public meeting. But these motions — anywhere from one or two to a half-dozen — are also omitted from the media package, and the motions are numbered. There is no public disclosure of the wording of the motion, despite the fact the Act states they must be ratified in a public meeting.
We accept the point that day-to-day personnel matters and sensitive business dealings should be confidential. But it’s our belief that everything else should be available for public consumption.
We bring this up because there have been several examples lately that we believe should have been discussed in the public chamber, but weren’t, leaving us to wonder how councillors felt about an issue or why they voted the way they did.
The latest example came just days ago, when a town official made reference to the “new” recreation director during a council meeting. Turns out council approved a notable realignment of staffing at the senior level, and separated parks and recreation into its own department, without ever mentioning it in public. Those involved are very high profile staff members, and we believe council had a duty to explain these changes in the chamber. Instead, we stumbled upon the issue.
We have also learned that in late 2010, council agreed to compensate a fish company in the town for “ loss of business.” We inquired about this expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars, but received the following reply from the CAO: “Information pertaining to the motion … is privileged — the motion in this meeting was simply to ratify a decision made by council in the privileged meeting held on Nov. 9, 2010.” Access denied. Why did the town feel it necessary to compensate the company? How did councillors vote on the issue? How much money was spent?
Then there’s the town’s proposed new business park. In October, council approved the spending of $171,000 for the purchase of 22 acres of Crown land. That motion passed without any debate at the public meeting, or any mention of the price tag in the motion. Obviously, all the debate took place behind closed doors, and we’re left to wonder if public meetings are symbolic gatherings where council will only debate the merits of composting or whether or not to make a donation to a certain charity.
Media has a role to play
Nigel Black says the town is trying to be as transparent as possible, but there are limits.
“I believe we have made strides to improve our level of transparency … and we will continue to do our best in that regard,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “ We generally discuss matters pertaining to land, legal and labour in privileged meetings. I’m sure you can appreciate that matters of this nature require confidential discussion and cannot be disclosed publicly.”
We expressed our concerns to a political science professor at Memorial University. Here, in part, was his response: “ The public places faith in its elected representatives to represent their interests and one of the roles of the fourth estate is to act as a mediator between the two. It is a difficult but important job.”
And it’s one we take seriously, despite the fact it sometimes puts us at odds with public officials who would rather we not stick our noses into the affairs of the towns or organizations they represent. But a lack of scrutiny and public oversight is a dangerous thing, and we have many examples to back that up.
Bay Roberts has experienced spectacular growth in recent years, and is quickly becoming a modern, progressive municipality with record housing starts and impressive growth in the business sector. It’s for this reason that we cast a critical eye on the town. Some big decisions are at hand, and it’s our job to inform the public.
We respect the efforts and time and compassion that council members bring to their elected posts each day. It’s not always an easy job, and sometimes the decisions they make have a profound impact on families and businesses.
We have great respect for Littlejohn’s leadership, and deputy mayor Philip Wood, a longtime educator in the region, is a highly respected member of the community. Nigel Black has also proved his worth since taking over as CAO a year ago, and it’s our view the town is in good hands.
But that doesn’t mean we’ll sit on the sidelines. We’ll keep probing and asking questions. The public deserves nothing less.